Saturday, May 28, 2011

Encuentros policiales/encounters with the police part 1

Men with guns are a very visible fact of everyday life in Guatemala. In addition to transit police (who are generally not armed), the National Civilian Police (Policia Nacional Civil or PNC -- who are armed), one frequently comes across truckloads of soldiers, and also armed security guards at banks, shopping malls and other businesses. 
Antigua, which has a lot of tourists and expatriates, has more police on foot and in vehicles making the rounds than in most other places I've been. Because of the role that police played during the armed conflict, and the 
Today, because of the robbery of my car, I spent more time than ever before in the company of armed men wearing uniforms. I understand that being in the police force is a job, and a reasonably good one in a country with extraordinarily high rates of poverty and un- or under-employment. And so not every person in the police force is necessarily evil, cruel, vicious, corrupt, ineffectual, or all of the above. Or at least not when he or she (there are some female officers, although a small minority) enlists. 
But still, I get uncomfortable around the police and the military as a general rule. This is due in part to my reading of recent Guatemalan history, reading the papers, and talking with friends and colleagues. The general attitude seems to be that the police are at best ineffective, and at worst ... well, you can imagine. Aiding and abetting organized crime, taking their share of the profits, and perhaps even worse.  Maybe one doesn't want to imagine too hard.
Thankfully I have had only limited and mostly arms-length encounters with the PNC. I see their cars along the highways; in Chinique I pass the substation on my way home occasionally.  Today, however, I had no choice. 
The two officers who took down my information seemed moderately competent. One of them did look at me somewhat askance when I changed my estimate of what time  I had come home last night. I had originally said that I got home around 9, but then when he was actually writing the information down, I realized that I had gotten into Antigua a bit after 9, but since I had driven across town to drop Roselyn off, and then had waited for her to find some DVDs she was lending me, I actually hadn't made it back here until closer to 10.  
The other officer made almost no comments to me; in fact, I'm not sure what he was doing.
After writing down somewhat laboriously the information that they deemed important, the officer told me, as I noted in an earlier post, that I needed to go in person to the Ministerio Público to "ratify" the complaint. He explained to me (not very clearly or correctly, as it turns out) how to get there. I was ready to go immediately, but he said that I should wait until after 12 noon. He said that he had already called in the information, however, and that it would be transmitted to other units. I have no idea whether any of that was true, or what difference it would make if it were.
So, a bit after 12, I set off for the Ministerio Público. This was my first experience getting around Guatemala without a vehicle of my own; on my shorter trips I've always rented a car at the airport, and while I've walked, gotten rides with other people occasionally, and once taken a bus, I have been used to independence and mobility. 
Most Guatemalans, most ordinary Guatemalans, do not have their own means of transportation -- traffic jams in Guatemala City notwithstanding. A fair number of young and middle-aged men get around on bicycles. They ride not only on city streets and rural roads, but also, occasionally, on stretches of the major highways. During my travels up and down the Panamericana, I sometimes see, on the edge of the paved road or on the shoulder, the hunched backs of riders (I reserve the term "cyclists" for those spandex-clad individuals on expensive road bikes --and yes, there are quite a few of these in Guatemala -- who pretty clearly are not using their bikes as a means of getting to and from a job as, say, a highway construction worker), wearily making their way to or from a day of what is usually back-breaking labor. 
But many people, of all ages, walk. Old men, middle-aged women, and young children trudge along the roads with loads of firewood on their backs, secured with a rope or strap that is stretched across their foreheads. Mothers walk with one child wrapped onto their backs and two or more tromping alongside, in front or behind them. 
Today I joined their ranks as I made my way out of the "centro", the central part of town, and headed south along the road to Ciudad Vieja (literally "old city", but it refers not to the city of Antigua proper but a community called Ciudad Vieja some few kilometers away). There was a sidewalk, narrow and uneven, for a short distance, and I had to dodge a few vehicles that were pulling out backwards from parking spaces that were off the street. Then the sidewalk ended and I made my way along the shoulder, which had stretches of gravel, stretches of dirt, and huge muddy puddles from last night's rainfall. The day was humid, which made the walk a warm and sweaty undertaking. 
I greeted people I passed, as is the custom here. "Buenos días" (usually a very strong emphasis on the di in días), which often elicits the same in response, sometimes followed by "Que le vaya bíen," (hope all goes well for you).  There were not a lot of pedestrians, but enough that I had company, although most seemed headed in the same direction as me (out of town, not in). I ducked out of the way of buses or cars that came too close to the edge, and looked around a bit. Some wholesale construction supply places; car repair shops; some upscale hotels. But then some areas that seemed under construction, a few roadside vendors. I wasn't sure how far to go; the police officer had said that I should pass a gas station called La Panorama and then the Ministerio Público was about 20 yards in to the left. This may indeed be true but I think they wanted me to go about half a mile further along the main road. I stopped and scooted across the highway (since there was no one on my side whom I could ask) to where a man was tending a small open-air food stall and asked where the Ministerio was. He told me to go down to the end, then take the first street on my left. I  came to a place where the highway curved and there was a paved road on my left; I asked again (since there was nothing evident within 20 yards) and the man whom I asked told me to go to the end of THAT street and on the left I would see a sign for the Ministerio.
So, I walked down, found the ministry, a two-story ochre building, and walked in what looked like the garage entrance (the only door that was open). The guard/receptionist on duty directed me to the first office on my right. No one was in there; there were papers strewn over the desks; my first thought was that this was not very secure.  If I had been nosy or ill-intentioned I could have read everything or stuffed things in my bag.  Not that I would do such a thing, at least not there -- but just saying.
I went back out to make sure I was in the right office and the guard said someone would be with me. I sat back down,  and then a pleasant young male worker came in and I explained I had come at the direction of the police to ratify a complaint. He told me that since the crime had occurred that morning, nothing had come in yet. I explained that I had come at the time the officers who took the complaint had told me to come. He suggested that I go to the police station - a kind of central command -- another block away and inquire. 
So I trudged on over, a wee bit uneasy entering the police headquarters. Although I assumed I was personally pretty safe, again my reaction was colored by what I know about Latin American police during the civil wars or counter-insurgency campaigns in Guatemala, El Salvador, Peru, Argentina, Chile: if you walk into the door of the headquarters you might not walk out again. At least not undamaged.
However, the two officers there were quite polite. They asked if I knew the names or unit numbers of the police who had taken my complaint. They asked if they were wearing orange vests or simply dark uniforms. After some conversation they seemed to have figured out whom to call, someone named "Chino" and did so. I'm not sure whether that was one of the two officers who had interviewed me or someone else, but after the phone call and some conversation between themselves, one officer told me that the complaint wouldn't be registered until sometime between 16 and 24 hours. I remarked, with some slight exasperation, that if that were the case, then why had the officers told me very explicitly to come at around 12 noon? I said that I had come at that specific time (I actually arrived at 1) because I had been told to come at that time, not because I just felt like it. The officer didn't really reply, but repeated that the complaint hadn't been filed. He said something that I didn't quite understand about if the car turned up and the complaint had already been filed then it would take two months to straighten things out: I'm not sure what things. I refrained from saying that I thought it was highly unlikely that my car would turn up, and asked before I left what time I should return the next day.  The officer told me that I had to come before noon because the Ministerio only worked a half-day on Saturday. I asked what time they opened; he said to come after 8 or 8:30. I've had enough experience with Latin American state bureaucracies to know that there was nothing to be gained by whining or complaining more, so I thanked the officers and left.
I took myself off back up the short, dusty street to the highway, and decided to take a bus, since it had been about a 40-45 minute walk, and not the most pleasant of walks because of the cars and buses whirring past and the less than spectacular roadside scenery. I don't usually use public transportation; I've been used to having my own car, and for short distances I would rather walk. But I decided to make a change. I hailed a bus, which pulled over without hitting me or the other woman waiting. It wasn't too crowded and I managed to snag a seat, and hopped off a few minutes later when it pulled up to the corner of 7ta Calle Poniente (7th Street West) and the Alameda, the street that the market is on.

Friday, May 27, 2011

La gente del cafe/"coffee people" -- or, how to make tolerable espresso in a cheap "made in China" pot

You know you've been in Guatemala long enough (or have been listening to Guatemalan commercial radio enough) when, on a trip to the US, you are still hearing, with your inner ear, the omnipresent and frequently repeated advertisements that seem to take up 20 minutes of every half hour on Guatemalan radio.  When I was in the states recently for my daughter's graduation, I kept hearing some of the most annoying ads ever, like the one for chicken, that has an oh-so-bouncy female voice singing the praises of "pollo, pollo, pollo". 
Another ad (thankfully bereft of upbeat singing) proclaims that all Guatemalans are "coffee people".  This may or may not be true. People in rural areas drink coffee, when they have it, from childhood through old age, and frequently drink it late at night, apparently with little ill effect (but it is mostly so weak that it can't have that much caffeine in it).
Here in Antigua, I can satisfy my craving for espresso-based beverages, although they are pretty costly.  Back early in my stay, I stopped at Cemaco, a moderately upscale housewares store, to buy, among other things, a stovetop espresso pot. Although I had been warned against purchasing the less expensive, "made in China" pot, the price differential was irresistible. However, it did not seem to produce drinkable coffee. Or any coffee at all, at first. I filled the base with water, scooped coffee into the basket, screwed on the top - and then watched most of the steam seep out the sides and top, leaving only a few bitter and burnt drops of espresso in the top half of the pot.
Disgusted after several tries, I put the pot aside and contented myself with purchasing lattes from some of the local cafés and chains, especially &Cafe ("y cafe"), which also sells very cute thermoses (thermi?). However, the recent theft of my car has prompted a wave of frugality. I have decided to stay in Antigua for several days -- I need to stay until Saturday to follow through with the police report on the theft, and then since I would have to be back on Monday night for my last class at the university, it hardly seemed worth my while to go back to Quiché by public transportation and then have to return again to Antigua. So, that would mean spending a fair amount of money, relatively speaking, on coffee.  I have an electric cappuccino maker in Chinique, so I make my own.  
So, back to the cheapo Chinese espresso pot.  I purchased a pound of coffee on my way back from an unsuccessful visit to the Ministerio Público, where I was supposed to "ratify" the crime report, but it hadn't yet been submitted. I made the first pot using a technique I'd learned in Cuba: let a little coffee come up, pour it out into a cup, and then put the pot back on the flame. Somehow the movement of the pot and the liquid inside the base prompts a better flow of steam.  It was still kind of bitter, as the first drops were very slow in coming, and as they fell onto a very hot metal surface (the inside of the top of the coffee pot), they got kind of scorched while waiting for more coffee to pulse up. And I had to pour out and then replace the pot on the flame several times to get all the water, or nearly all the water, to steam up.
So then I hit upon the idea of boiling the water in the base first, and only when the water was already boiling, quickly putting coffee in the basket and screwing on the top. Which I did, and the coffee spouted up very smoothly, and with much less of a scorched taste.
So, herewith, instructions:
1) Fill the base of the espresso pot with water (up to where the little valve is). Put on the flame.
2) When the water is boiling, briefly remove the pot from the flame (keep the flame going). Insert the basket for the coffee groups, lightly scoop in the coffee (don't pack down), and quickly screw on the top (you will need a potholder or glove to hold the hot base). Make sure you screw on the top securely.
3) Replace pot on flame and listen/watch/smell to make sure it is brewing, and check when it is done. You may need to take it off the flame before the very last drop of water has been brewed, but that's okay. You don't want to let the brewed coffee that has accumulated in the top of the pot start to boil.

Nuevas llantas/new tires= grand theft auto

This blog post now seems very dated and foolish: I started this last night as it was raining and I was sitting in my cozy little den. I'll leave this part, however, and add something at the end.

[This part was written on the night of May 26, after I'd returned from Guatemala City with new tires] Those traffic safety fans, and those concerned with my safety and well being will be pleased to know that I finally decided to buy a brand new set of tires for the bendito (literally means "blessed" but colloquially signifies "f***ng") picop.  Everything was fine and dandy (as fine and dandy as can be expected of a 16-year old truck with over 100,000 miles on it) for the first two months, and then the tires started to go, one after the other. Up in El Quiché, there really is no such thing as a new tire -- "new" as we would understand it in the states. "New" as in "fresh from the factory, never put on anyone else's car before."  The first flat occurred one of the first days we were at the radio station, when one of the young compañeros asked to borrow the truck to drive into the center of Santa Cruz for an errand. He came back, told me the tire was flat, and then went off to fix it. Since then, it seems that I have a flat every other week.
The next-to-the-last straw was when I returned from a trip abroad to find that the tire I had just purchased two days before my departure was not only flat but completely un-redeemable.  The last straw was last week, just before I left to attend my daughter's graduation. I had a flat on Monday in Santa Cruz, when I was trying to leave the radio station to head to Antigua, and then Wednesday morning as I was driving into Guatemala City from Antigua, and we had just hit the city limits of Guatemala City on the  Calzada Roosevelt (one of the ugliest stretches of urban landscape one can imagine), a tire blew out. We pulled over (no easy feat on a road with no shoulder, no parking lane, and a bunch of maniacal drivers hell-bent on destruction) and luckily someone at the business where we had pulled over was able to help us remove the blown out tire and put on the spare. Especially lucky as we not only had to get to the university and teach our classes but I had to go straight from the uni to the airport so I could make it back to NYC. 
So I vowed to get new tires when I returned. I called the brother of a friend the day after my return, and he said he knew someone, and would call, but by Thursday hadn't done anything and so I called Marcos, who runs one of the taxi services here (I've only used his car service once but have called him regarding parking at the airport, and figured he might know about tires) and went to the place he recommended.
However, the job I felt last night was short lived. It was pouring rain when we came back from an event at FLACSO, and I didn't think much about leaving the car on the street. Parking has been an issue at my place in Antigua; ostensibly, I had rights to park my car in the driveway. However, the other tenants who have their Land Rover there --the people who live in the big house behind our three little apartments -- have decided that they are going to go by their understanding of their agreement with the landlord, which is that they have exclusive rights to the parking spot. Since about early April, they have just parked their car right in the middle of the drive way so that there is no room for another vehicle. I gave up talking to them about it, and I gave up talking to the landlady. I had been told that I could park my car; when the other tenants said that they had paid extra for exclusive rights for parking, I had called my landlady and she fluffed around and said, "Well, but we didn't think your car was going to be so big, there really isn't space." I chose not to get into an argument with her.  I could have pointed out (a) she had never asked me what kind of car I was getting, and she had no reason to assume it was going to be a small car; had she asked me I would have told her that I was probably going to get a pick up; (b) there is room for a Land Rover and a pick up as long as the first car in pulls down to the end of the space; and (c) the issue with the other tenants was not the size of my car but their understanding that the space was exclusively theirs, period.
So I've left my car on the street for the 1-3 nights a week I am in Antigua. This week was unusual in that I was here for 4 nights, and maybe someone really had a chance to scope out my car. I will never know.
The landlady had made some sympathetic noises at one point in this saga of the parking space, and suggested that I should come talk to her and see what we could work out. I guess I backed off from meeting, because what I would have said was, "It's your responsibility to find me a parking space since you told me I'd be able to park my car when I said I'd take the apartment." 
But I came home last night, parked my car on the street, behind another car that was apparently parked for the night, a small, new, red compact vehicle (didn't look at the make; it was still there this morning). I started to blog about my new tires, and then read and went to sleep. I got up this morning, and started to figure out the logistics of packing up, for two purposes. First, to take what I brought from the states back to Chinique, and also getting ready to vacate this apartment next week. 
At around 6:45 (I'd been up since about 5:30), having breakfasted and yoga-ed, I decided to go out and take a walk up the Cerro de la Cruz, which overlooks the north end of Antigua. I slipped Q30 into my pocket since I thought I'd pick up my laundry on the way. I haven't used a commercial laundry before, but I wanted to clean the towels and sheets; one of my complaints about my current living situation is that there is no direct sunlight on the small patio where there is an outdoor sink and clothesline, and so it takes a very long time for anything to dry.  My neighbor told me the laundry wasn't very expensive so I took the sheets and towels over there. I think Q30 is a lot for two towels and one set of thin sheets (about $3.75) but I was already there so I left the stuff. 
So, I got ready to leave the house and walked out the driveway door. To get to the Cerro de la Cruz I turn to the right when leaving, and I nearly always park on the left hand side (there's not much space to the right, as there is another driveway nearby and not much space between the two). But I glanced over to the left and stopped short: the street looked awfully empty, and I could only see the small red compact that had been in front of my car last night. 
No corinto pick up. Just cobblestones and a small red car.
I went back inside, got out the certified copy of my registration, and went around the corner where there are transit police in the morning directing traffic for a colegio that is on 4ta Avenida. I asked them how to report the theft; they radioed the Policia Municipal Civil (civil municipal police) and within a few minutes there were three police vehicles with flashing lights (thankfully no sirens). Meanwhile I had called the embassy; well, first, I called Roselyn, my fellow Fulbright scholar, and told her; she suggested calling the embassy but I didn't have the little card they had given us, so she called me back with the number and I filed a report at the Embassy.
Not that I think they will do anything for me, but as a matter of protocol.
The police, pleasant if not especially efficient, came to the street in front of my residence and took information: I noticed that the officer was using a random page from a datebook. It wasn't today's date that he was using, and I'm not even sure the agenda was from 2011; I didn't look at the cover. In Cuba people used old datebooks as notebooks, since people didn't often have  a lot of paper. I've noticed here in Guatemala some of the women using old datebooks, or not so old ones, as notebooks.
Among the information they requested were the names of my parents; I'm not sure what they need those for. When the officer asked for my mother's name I said that she had been dead for over 30 years; he said, "It's just one of the things we have to put down."
So, after they had written down what they needed and called in the information to whatever central office they needed to contact, they told me that I had to go to the Ministerio Público and  ratify my complaint; I thought I would go immediately but they told me after 12.
So, a sad lesson learned. I didn't have theft insurance. I hadn't followed up with my landlady about finding another parking space. I just put the car on the street.
And I was so proud of the new tires. 
So, now a series of expensive headaches. I can't even figure out how I will get my suitcase, camera and backpack (where I keep my computer), up to Chinque. I can't trust all of that stuff on a bus. My best hope is to find my landlord in Chinique, who travels to Guatemala a couple of times a week, to see if he can pick me up. Anything else would be too expensive. And then I have to find another vehicle, which means going through all the headache of registering it in Guatemala once I've actually found and purchased it, figuring out how to get the money, and so forth. There go my savings.
So, in order to put my petty little woes in perspective, it's good to read the newspaper. "Aumenta violencia contra las mujeres" reads one headline: violence against women on the uptick. Woman and her daughter are shot in a market.  So, I have something about which to be thankful.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Back for the long haul

These past few months have gone by extraordinarily fast -- in part because I've been out of Guatemala so much. I've made five trips since late February -- four to the mainland U.S. (and three of those to NYC) and one to Puerto Rico. So although I've been in Guatemala for over four months -- or rather, I arrived here four and a half months ago -- it doesn't feel like I've been here that long. 
But I've taken a vow, to myself at least: no more trips out of the country until November. I need to really spend uninterrupted time here, to get into a steady rhythm of work at the radio station, and figuring out the nitty gritty of the research -- the part that is not just hanging out and trying to make sense of what folks are doing but being more systematic about things.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Politics of the everyday

Today driving from Chichicastenango to Sta. Cruz to run a few errands, I heard a radio announcement from the president, Alvaro Colom, about the situation in Peten and announcing that he had declared a state of siege. Just one problem: in the announcement, which had apparently been recorded sometime today (Tuesday May 17), he got the month wrong. Not just once, but three times. He started out by saying that on the 14th of March (he clearly said "Marzo", not "Mayo") there had been a terrible massacre. And that on the 16th of March, the president of the republic made a personal visit to Peten. (I always get a little anxious when anyone, politicians or anyone else, refers to him or herself in the third person; could he not have said, "On the 16th of May, in my capacity as president of the republic, I made a visit to the Peten...").  And on the 17th of March, a state of siege was declared.  
I was mildly shocked (I tried to rein myself in as the road from Chichi to Santa Cruz is notoriously steep and winding). Didn't someone in the government, or the radio station, listen to the damned thing before airing it? Were they all asleep, drugged, or just not paying attention? Or was this a case of "the emperor who had no clothes" -- some subordinate did notice but didn't want to speak up?  This was almost as annoying as the "Don Justo Cabal" sugar ads: the same ad runs twice in a row. Didn't the various radio stations where the ad runs notice, or does the company think that this is a good strategy?
In any case, by the time I was leaving Chichi a few hours later, someone had obviously noticed the mistake and had gotten the president to re-record the announcement -- so now all the events are taking place in May, not March. Whew! At least they got that part right.  I mean, it's hard to imagine anyone having an effective strategy for dealing with narcotrafficking, or being mildly competent to implement said strategy (assuming it exists) if he goes on the national airwaves and doesn't know what month it is (it would be understandable if he made a gaffe in a live press conference, but this was recorded: you'd think that someone, a sound engineer, or communications director, listened to it before it went on the air).

Poverty and victimhood

The national papers have revealed some more details about the massacre over the weekend. The campesinos who were murdered were not natives of Petén, but instead internal migrants, most of whom came from a community called Los Amates in Izabal. Seasonal or temporal internal migration has shaped life in rural communities in Guatemala for centuries, since the forced labor regimes of the colonial period (and people I know have reported that as late as the 1970s, Maya men were rounded up and forced to work building roads and other "public works" projects).  As subsistence agriculture has been undermined (by so many forces it's hard to detail without launching into a lengthy explanation: forced removals, failure of land reform, agribusiness, drop in prices for some agricultural commodities, displacement and destruction of villages due to the war), either internal or international migration often seem like the only solutions for poor rural families. One article detailed the story of one of the female victims -- a woman whose husband had died a few years ago. Her oldest son recalled that his meager salary was the family's only income and it wasn't enough, and that his mother had gone off to the Finca Las Cocos in Petén, happy that she would be earning money for her family. The communities in Izabal where the migrants lived mostly had homes built of trees (the article didn't explain more)  and boards, and people could earn Q35 a day if they succeeded selling their tomatoes, cucumbers and other products. The finca offered the security of Q50 a day.
According to the story, many of the migrant workers had returned to their natal village for Mother's Day, which is celebrated here on May 10, and then returned to the finca to work.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Sunday bloody Sunday/Domingo sangriente

Sometimes the news here is beyond horror. We get accustomed to daily newspaper and radio reports about assaults on buses, bodies being discovered by the volunteer firemen in one municipality or other, and other acts of violence.  If it's not murders and assaults, then it's political corruption and impunity - and perhaps those are related in ways that I haven't fully analyzed.
But this weekend was especially brutal, even for a country that has a daily murder rate of 18 (one of the highest in Latin America). Last night, via Facebook (here we are again with the social media thing), I learned from a friend in Guatemala that there had been a mass killing in Petén -- 27 decapitated bodies found on a finca near La Libertad. By the time I checked the newspaper, the body count had risen to 29: 27 men and 2 women, all campesino/as who worked on the finca.  According to the news, the killings were probably the work of a drug cartel, likely the Zetas. The scale and brutality (today's news noted that there appeared to have been torture before the killings) harken back to the mass killings of the internal armed conflict. And perhaps there are connections here: it is widely believed that former (and maybe not-so-former) military are deeply involved in the narco trafficking operations. At the very least, the cartels operate with lack of any meaningful interference or intervention from the police and military. 
And then this morning, as I was helping a friend who is part of the radio project find some information about bilingual education in Guatemala, I came across a news headline that the nephew of human rights activist Amilcar Mendez had been murdered. Three things hit me: this was someone I knew (Amilcar, not the nephew); he had already suffered one murder in his family (his son, a photographer who had accompanied him in some of his recent human rights work, was murdered in 2007); and the murder occurred in Santa Cruz del Quiché -- where I am sitting as I write these lines. This was a targeted assassination and not a random killing:  just in case anyone is worried about my personal safety.  The killers attacked him at the entrance to his home. There were unconfirmed reports (unconfirmed by the police) that the neighbors captured 4 people.  
I don't claim to know Amilcar well; someone had given me his phone number when I made my first trip to Guatemala in the summer of 2009 and I didn't really know much about him. He was eager to meet and offered to host me the night before I left Guatemala. After I found my way to the community where he lived, I spent the evening with him and his family, intermittently chatting with him about his work, about human rights, and other human rights figures in Guatemala. Teddy Kennedy had just died, and Amilcar was very affected by the news; he had been the recipient of the Robert Kennedy award and had met Ted Kennedy on a few occasions. During the course of the evening, he had mentioned that he was very preoccupied with the case of his son but it wasn't until we went into his study and he began to tell me stories about the photos that lined the walls, and explained that his son, who had taken many of the photographs, had been killed two years earlier. Words are really inadequate at moments like that: what do you say? "Sorry your political enemies took their rage out on your family?"  I can only imagine the horror of losing a child (I know a few friends who have, but not during the time of our acquaintance), and it must be even more horrific when it comes as the result of a political assassination -- in part due to one's own political activity.
So, the culture of impunity is alive and well. I don't hold out much hope for the long arm of the law; after all, the people who were killed were not "important" individuals, just some poor campesinos who happened to be working on the wrong finca. The legal system functions imperfectly at best: last week the ex-president who was charged with influence peddling and corruption was let off (although one of the three judges dissented).

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Field 2.0: Ethnography in the era of social media, or fieldwork and facebook

This morning a friend back in the U.S. and I were chatting via Facebook. He lives in the south, and I had written to find out how he and his family were faring with the storms and floods.  This is how I often spend my Saturday mornings - listening to the local (New York City) news on the radio, checking my email and often checking in with friends via Facebook.  My conversation with this friend ranged over a number of topics. From the weather we turned to how we learn about the news (reading hard copy versus digital editions). He was checking something on his Kindle; I replied that I had a Nook but only used it to read books (I am a bit of a curmudgeon; I like single-purpose devices. I want my phone to make phone calls. When I want to shoot photos I will use a camera; when I want to shoot video I will use a video camera).  We had also chatted about downloading videos (I am in the midst of a very slow download of the first episodes of the new season of Tremé). He commented, "Huh. And here I've been thinking you were an underdeveloped region of an under-developed countyry. You're sitting around watching Treme and reading books on Nook."

Both things are true: I am in an underdeveloped region of an under-developed country. There are cows pastured on three sides of my house (the fourth side is the street). I cook on a wood-burning stove sometimes. And thanks to my trusty little USB modem, I can be online as much as I like, within reason.

Being online and chatting with friends or posting videos on Facebook, however, is not simply a privilege of the chattering classes of the First World. Nor is it simply a way of isolating myself and creating a protective little cocoon to shield myself or separate myself from daily life in Guatemala. For one thing, status updates and notes on Facebook were one way of communicating with my friends and family about what I was doing here in Guatemala (before starting this blog, and I continue to post things there since not everyone will bother to read the blog). I first realized the potential of Facebook for sharing ethnographic observations last year, when I read insightful and often poetic updates posted by one of my former professors from NYU, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, who has been in Poland for the past year or so, and I still relish reading her posts -- which range from rhapsodies about the pleasures of eating fresh berries to observations about contemporary Polish culture and politics.

But also, increasingly, people with whom I work on Guatemala are using Facebook and other forms of social media. For example, many of the staff members of Ixmukané are on Facebook, and several of them are my Facebook friends. Since most of them live at least several towns away (in Chichicastenango or Santa Cruz del Quiché), we often communicate during off-hours via Facebook. Sometimes we just have friendly chats; sometimes it's the fastest way for me to find out what is going on. Today, for instance, I needed to know whether we were going to be broadcasting tomorrow (Sunday). Yesterday someone at the station had told me that we were. This morning I saw that the person who was supposed to be responsible for the Sunday broadcast was on Facebook chat, so I messaged her to find out if she wanted me to meet her there. She replied that as far as she knew, there was no broadcast tomorrow and that we were starting up again on Monday. I could have called or texted her; she might or might not have replied; Guatemalans seem to have odd relationships with their cellphones. But she responded immediately on FB and so I was spared an unnecessary trip to Santa Cruz del Quiché tomorrow.

Thursday night, I received a chat message from another compañero from Ixmukané who was unsuccessfully attempting to set up a Youtube account for the organization -- Ixmukané, like many organizations in Guatemala, has a communications strategy that includes the radio station as well as a website and social media. He thought perhaps he had a weak signal and wanted to know if I could set up the Youtube account for him. Keeping our FB chat open so he could give me the information I needed , I opened Youtube and, switching between the two windows, was able to set up the Youtube account and let him know so he could then login. Mission accomplished. All in a day's fieldwork.

En breve/in brief

You go away for a little less than a week and when you get back, things are both different and the same. Politics continues to be a farce: the U.S. grants a visa to war criminal and presidential front runner Otto Perez Molina; a panel of judges declares that ex-President Portillo, who was charged with money-laundering, influence-peddling and who knows what-all else, is not guilty based on insufficient proof; meanwhile the Commission on Impunity says they are going to look into the matter.  Business as usual. A friend offered the opinion that perhaps the judges who ruled in Portillo's favor were frightened of ruling against him (there have been death threats and other intimidations of judges in the not-very-distant past) or that maybe they had received payoffs. There was one judge who did rule against Portillo but she was outvoted by the others.

Also, although the president and presidential candidate Sandra Torres (formerly Torres de Colom) have divorced, they are both apparently living in the presidential residence, although in separate apartments. I was also told (I haven't yet found this in the news) that the courts were looking into their divorce (although it was already officialized).

Residents of some communities in Alta Verapaz have complained that they have been pressured into affiliating themselves with UNE (the ruling party) in order to keep receiving benefits from one of the social programs, Mi Familia Progresa.

And finally (for now) from the world of politics, the daughter of former dictator Rios Montt has withdrawn her candidacy for president; she was to have been running on the FRG (one of the far-right parties, the one founded by her father).

Of course, most of this doesn't seem to affect daily life in the small town where I live. It's Saturday; the sun is shining; animals are making noises; very few people are out on the streets. National politics seems relatively far-removed, except for those who are active in one of the parties. 

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Small happiness/pequeña felicidad

Una pequeña obsesión mía ha sido la búsqueda para bebidas sin azúcar, sobretodo "jugo natural" (otro nombre abusado aquí en Guate) o sea, jugo que es 100% jugo. La mayoría de los productos que uno encuentra en las tiendas cuando pregunta para "jugo" son "nectares" -- base de jugo, se supone, pero con no sé cuanta azúcar. Bastante.  Aquí en Chinique no he encontrado "jugo" (según mi definición de la palabra). La mayoría de los "jugos" en las tiendas son realmente "bebidas frutales". En Quiché encontré un tipo de jugo de uvas que era 100% jugo, en la Dispensa Familiar (una cadena de tiendas con precios baratos que recientemente fue comprado por Wal-Mart, tristemente). Pero jugo de uvas no es mi jugo favorito; muy dulce. 

Entonces, imagínanse mi sorpresa ayer... salimos con mis estudiantes para un viaje a un parte mas remoto del departamento de Quiché, más al norte y oriente. Estuvimos en la carretera que comienza en los Encuentros, la RD 15 (Ruta Departamental, creo), que pasa por Santa Cruz y siga al norte. Realmente cuando uno sale de Santa Cruz, el paisaje cambia y también se ve mas vacío, menos poblado, que la carretera, por ejemplo, entre Santa Cruz y Joyabaj.  Después de San Pedro Jocopilas, realmente no hay un pueblo hasta Sacapulas, como 35 km. Llegando a una curva en la carretera, un cruz de camino donde hay un rotulo que manda trafico pesado para Huehuetenango por una vía, vimos una gasolinera por mano izquierda. Decidimos a aprovechar de los servicios sanitarios, y mientras unos usaban los baños los otros entremos en la pequeña tienda. No pensé encontrar nada de interés, pero miré para pasar el tiempo. Allí, milagrosamente, aparecieron unas latas de jugo de piñas, 100% jugo. Compré 6; cayó una y entonces quedo con 5.  Irónicamente, no encontré jugo sin azúcar en La Bodegona, una tienda bastante grande en Antigua, donde hay muchos turistas y residentes extranjeros que, se supone, crean mas demanda para bebidas sin azúcar (si se puede comprar bebidas sin azúcar en Antigua pero no el la Bodegona). Pero aquí a lado de una carretera en el campo donde, en un sábado, vimos MUY pocos otros carros, y ningún otro extranjero en un viaje de 2.5 horas, había 100% jugo.

Remesas bi-direccionales/Bidirectional remittances

Time to prepare for another trip to the U.S. which means, as usual, collecting a few things that people here want to send to migrants living in the U.S. Today's project is a quick trip to Zacualpa, the next town to the east of us. Zacualpa was one of the communities hardest hit during the armed conflict, and the church building still bears the scars. It is also a municipio that has been shaped in recent years by substantial migration to the U.S. - and it is one of the major communities of origin for the Maya in New Bedford. 

Sometimes the requests come from "allá" -- that is, I will get a call telling me that so-and-so's sister or family needs to send something, and sometimes the requests come from this end. Sometimes what people want to send from here are material objects -- handwoven textiles, beans from the family's plot -- and, other times, legal documents. More and more of the migrants I know are involved in various legal proceedings to "regularize" their status, and also to seek visas for their families.  So, a few days ago I got a call from Doña F, in Zacualpa, telling me that she needed to send the birth certificates for the children of her sister in New Bedford. And I have been holding onto a plastic bag containing items that one of the women in Oxib' B'atz', the women's association in New Bedford, had wanted to send to her family. This bag was given to me when I was in Seattle last month -- my colleague/friend/collaborator Adrian, who joined me in Seattle to talk about the relationship between anthropologists and Maya communities, took advantage of our encounter to hand me a bag for Olivia's family.  Unfortunately I have only gone to Zacualpa once since then, and it was a last-minute invitation to a meeting with comadronas (midwives) and I forgot the package. 

Today I had intended to go with my students who were here for a visit to my field site (such as it is), but after yesterday's excursions (Cunén and Sacapulas), they decided they needed to return to Guatemala City a bit earlier than we'd planned (one had to work, and they were all worried about the traffic because Guatemala's Catholic establishment is making a huge deal over the beatification of John Paul II, and therefore the city traffic is supposed to be especially congested and miserable). That was fine with me, but I had already arranged to meet up with the women in Zacualpa to deliver one package and receive the documents that are going in the other direction. So, I'm off....